Dear Kids, A long time ago, when you were little, Mom and I took you to where we wanted to build a house. . . . I remember there was one tree, however, that the three of you couldn’t stop staring at. . . .
After the family spares him from the builders, Steve the tree quickly works his way into their lives. He holds their underwear when the dryer breaks down, he’s there when Adam and Lindsay get their first crushes, and he’s the centerpiece at their outdoor family parties. With a surprising lack of anthropomorphizing, this is a uniquely poignant celebration of fatherhood, families, love, and change.
Our Tree Named Steve has to be a true story. It feels like one. I read the whole thing, standing up, in the public library where I saw it (it was standing up, too) on top of a book case in the children’s section. It almost made me cry. In the library.
The Art of Memory
David Catrow’s wonderful illustrations are as good as the text and embrace the sound and sense of it completely. I especially loved the children’s faces. Something about them reminds me of the way we looked, my siblings and I, in childhood. The illustrations are as fanciful as they are realistic, but it’s a familiar, friendly-dog-chicken-casserole kind of fanciful, not surreal or exotic. It’s the reality of memory – loving, a little goofy, depicting the feeling associated with an event more than its historical fact. This is what makes the characters and places recognizable, although we’ve never met them.
For the Parent
Our Tree Named Steve is written as a letter from a father to his children, and as it progresses, you realize the children are grown up, or nearly so. It’s what makes the story tug on your heart-strings as an adult reader. You recognize both perspectives in yourself – the father helping his children confront a loss and the children saying goodbye to a part of their childhood. I’d question whether the book is more for adults than children, except that children will easily relate to the humorous, comfortable voice of it and the everyday events it recounts. Some of the best children’s books reach the parent over the child’s head. It’s a children’s book with an adult book hidden inside it.
Our Tree Named Steve is a perspective on grieving and on finding resurrection in the midst of loss. Without spoiling the book, which builds to a surprising climax and resolution, I can say it’s unusual for the grief book genre. It’s one degree removed from the usual plot and character roles, and this could be helpful. One part of me never wants a children’s story to be sad. We all want childhood to be happy, and we instinctively resist confronting our children with sorrow. But life happens, tears happen, and I think this book would be effective for some children simply because it is not about a pet or grandparent. If your dog has just crossed the rainbow bridge, you may not want to read a story explicitly about a dog crossing the rainbow bridge. Some children need a story that matches their own. Some children need creative indirection to process serious grief.
This book reminded me obliquely of my own upcoming board book, Piggy in Heaven. Both books center as much on the experience of the “person” we’ve lost as they do on the mourners. And both explore the comforting fact that although it changes form or place, life goes on.